Damage Incorporated

Richard Rouse Interview

This interview with Damage Incorporated designer Richard Rouse was recently web-published at the fine Mac 3D Total Action site. Of the interview, Richard Rouse said: "I think I said some fairly interesting things, though I did tend to drone on and on, wouldn't you say? And that whole business about the military not being 'cool'? What was a I bloody talking about, what an inane thing to say. But I guess that's what first interviews will do to you..." Here's the unedited interview, as it appeared at the site.

Richard Rouse is the developer of two games for the Macintosh, Odyssey - The Legend of Nemesis, and most recently, Damage Incorporated. Both were developed under his Paranoid Productions development studio and both were published by MacSoft. That's about where the similarities between the games end, however. In his spare moments, Richard still writes for Inside Mac Games magazine, where he recently started writing a column called "Paranoid Ramblings" which talks about designing computer games, Damage Incorporated in particular.

How did you get the idea for Damage Incorporated (DI)?

Well, that's actually a multi-faceted question. The initial germ of an idea actually came from MacSoft: near the end of 1995 they had been talking with Bungie about licensing the Marathon 2 engine, and wanted a game to be made using it. They also were really fond of Westwood's Command & Conquer, I mean who isn't? They wondered if the two styles of games could be mixed. Also, they had looked at what genres of first person shooters were available in the gaming community - both Mac and PC - and noticed that a modern day warfare setting was something which hadn't really been done. And something which should be done. Incidentally - and this is kinda funny - another genre they thought of was an American western sort-of-thing. Of course LucasArts went on to do that in "Outlaws", and nobody wants to compete with the quality games LucasArts always turns out, so I'm glad we went for the modern day warfare setting instead. Of course there's still no sign of a Mac version of Outlaws, but...

So you were happy to go with the Command & Conquer crossed with Marathon idea?

Oh, sure. Marathon 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and I was already familiar with Bungie's, that is to say, Jason Jones' coding style from my work on Odyssey, which long long ago was a Bungie project. And I thought combining a strategic level of gameplay with the more arcade-feel of a first person shooter was a good idea, something I would be able to make a solid game out of. And, based on all the extremely positive response we've gotten both from game-players and the press, I guess I succeeded.

I must admit I was slightly put off by the present-day military setting they wanted, though I was glad to be working in a genre that isn't being done-to-death in computer games like science fiction and fantasy are. I worried that present day war wasn't, well, maybe not "cool" enough. When I say cool enough, I really mean cool to me personally. It wasn't something that really moved me, or was interesting to me. I mean, a lot of the war movies that come out are just the dopiest, most ridiculously patriotic crap you've ever seen. But then I remembered Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket", which I'd already seen three times or so. Now there's a great, interesting war movie. So I went through and analyzed it, trying to figure out what I thought was compelling about it. I've probably seen it fifteen times by now.

First of all, FMJ was about the Marine Corps, the "hardest" of the armed forces, so the game was now starring Marines. Another thing was that the guys swore a blue-streak throughout the movie, constantly chattering to each other. Unfortunately, and unreasonably in my opinion, MacSoft said absolutely nothing resembling a swear could be in a game, not even "damn", "bastard", "hell" or "ass", let alone "motherfucker". Hence Duke says "move you butt" when you know he'd really say something more colorful. But I tried to make the banter as omni-present and interesting as possible. Originally Frank was going to swear in French, but then I decided it wouldn't fit his character.

So was that all you got out of repeated viewings of Full Metal Jacket?

No, actually, the other thing that was compelling about the movie was how it dealt with death. I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it - and you all should see it - but it wasn't that sort of death you so often get in war movies where the guy gets shot, falls over, and the rest of his troop just keeps going as if nothing has happened. I really wanted the player to be feel something, emotionally, when his or her teammates were killed. That was another reason everybody had distinct personalities, so you might actually miss them when they were gone. I think most people probably just revert to save games when their teammates die, so I don't really think I achieved my goal.

And I don't want to suggest that was the only movie that influenced me either: Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" was another really good one, despite Mark Hammil's standard lack-of-acting-ability problem; thank God he wasn't the main character, like in some other movies I won't name. I wanted to see Fuller's "The Steel Helmet" for inspiration, which I hear is an excellent movie, but I couldn't find a copy of it anywhere. And every Marine knows that John Wayne is the ultimate Marine, as can be seen in "The Sands of Iwo Jima", which is in many ways a horrible movie but in many others is a great one. Anyway, the character Duke in Damage actually quotes a number of John Wayne movies, including several lines from "Sands."

Have you been in the Marine Corps personally?

No, I haven't, and regrettably that probably hurt the game's realism some, that I'm really an armed-forces virgin. I mean, in truth, I'm a hard-core pacifist and would plead conscientious objector if they drafted me to go protect the US's oil interests or something. I've never even touched a real gun, nor do I want to. One of the most frightening moments for me was when it turned out that one of the game's artists, Kurt Lawson, told me that he actually owned an M9 Pistol or something really similar to it, and actually cocked it for me while we were talking on the phone. Fortunately for the game he was able to make a damn fine 3D model of an M9 because of his knowledge of the gun. Anyway, my parents never let me have a gun when I was a kid, and I seem to have developed this tremendous fear of guns in real life. In computer games or movies I love 'em, but I'd never want to be near a real one, especially if it was loaded.

So you're anti-military?

No, not really. I don't really dislike the military and certainly not the people in it. I have a great amount of respect for soldiers, anyone who can keep his sanity in a combat situation. But I could just never be in the military myself. I guess I'm basically a coward with a profound fear of death, not to mention a profound objection to killing other humans, whatever the reason, no matter who's telling me to do it.

Aren't you worried that the DI subject will cause a stir among the sympathizers of Militia groups?

That's a good question. I did actually worry about this, but only after I had started using the militia storyline to the point where I couldn't go back. I don't know that I would have not used it if I could have though, because I found it to be compelling subject matter. MacSoft wanted present day warfare and they wanted it in to take place in other countries. But I thought, instead of American's going someplace and shooting foreigners, as we seem to enjoy doing so much, the game could be more compelling if we were actually fighting ourselves, in a way, Americans against Americans. I threw in the Grazziano-Fellini weapons factory mission as a present to MacSoft, who wanted some "international intrigue", but the whole rest of the game takes place in the States.

I had seen Morris Dees' book "Gathering Storm", and I found the information it contained about the modern militia movement - including groups like the Klu Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, and the Posse Comitatus as well as "lone nuts" like Timothy McVeigh - to be quite disturbing. Would, someday, these groups pose a great threat to national security, perhaps? Indeed, McVeigh already has. I think if a catalyst came along, such as a Jeremiah, they could all be motivated for a common purpose, and they could all become much more dangerous than they currently are. And that's what the game's about.

In which case the Marines should be called in?

Well, that's what Damage Incorporated's about. Me, personally, playing Damage Incorporated is like watching "Cops" on US TV: you can just count the civil rights violations fly by. I wouldn't approve of a covert military strike as is carried out Damage Incorporated, in fact what you're called on to do in the game is, to me, morally dubious at best. But I believe the US government, if provoked, would do just that. Hell, that's what the government - in the form of the ATF and the FBI - did at Waco; and anyone who doubts the governments wrong-doing in that fiasco should see the recent documentary "Waco - The Rules of Engagement." The same government that caused that tragedy to transpire would allow for a FITICA to be created, allow it to recruit a team of Marines to carry out its dirty work, massacre hundreds of over-zealous militia men, and would then bury the whole thing so the public never found out about it. Or maybe they wouldn't but that's what happens in the game.

I'm not pro-militia, but I'm really not pro-current-US-government, either. Fortunately, I don't think militia types spend much time playing computer games: they're out firing real weapons, preparing for the overthrow of the government in one form or another. So I don't think they're going to come bother with me. I hope not, anyway.

Commanding a team of Marines makes DI a unique game and has gotten excellent critical response on this. How difficult was to program it?

Actually, more difficult than we had originally thought due to limitations in the Marathon 2 artificial intelligence. The AI Bungie wrote for Marathon was perfectly fine for those games, where if a monster gets stuck in a wall somewhere, you don't care, because it just makes it easier for you to blow him away. It was all-right that the monsters didn't make optimal paths to get from one location to another, and it was OK that they couldn't dodge your missiles. But in Damage, if your teammate, for no apparent reason takes the long way to get to somewhere you just ordered him to go, you're going to be annoyed. And when there's a missile heading right for him and he doesn't get out of the way, you're gonna be pissed off. And when he gets stuck up on the side of a cliff and won't come down again, you going to be bloody furious. So we had to write a whole new layer or AI on top of what was already there from Marathon, and it got very hairy by the end. And it still isn't perfect. We might have been better off writing more of it from scratch. But it works pretty well in the end, I think.

What I really am pleased about in the commanding of your teammates in Damage, is that the interface is fairly robust. People may find it a bit obtuse at first, but nobody really complains that they can't get their team to do one thing or another. We managed to implement nearly everything you could possibly want to have your teammates do. Also, there's at least two ways to do almost every command, so that helps. And the commands are really progressive in their learning curve, so you start out just pressing F2 to get the whole team to follow you in the beginning, and that's fine. But then at the end you can really trivialize certain challenging conflicts by using Hold Commands well, or by having the squad members follow each other in teams. There have been a couple of times, when testing the levels, when I thought up a new solution to a firefight that had always been a pain. And when it actually worked in the game, that's when I was really pleased with the command structure. The best thing about writing games is when someone thinks of some new way to do something you hadn't thought of, and it works.

Your first game, Odyssey, was a quite different type of game. Tell us more about it.

It certainly is at the absolute other end of the spectrum, as far as style of game goes. It was my first commercially published game, the first game anyone but my friends saw, and I've actually grown fond of it in retrospect. I think I prefer it to Damage Incorporated. It's a fantasy role playing game, where you're wandering this mysterious archipelago - which was the game's original name - trying to find out what's going on there, as well as what happened to this magical staff you've lost. Along the way you meet like eighty different characters, and there's something like 200 or 300 pages of dialog alone. Except in some isolated instances, the puzzles aren't abstract logic things, but rather human situations where you have to figure out a logical solution to real problems. Almost all of the puzzles have multiple solutions, and different solutions have different ramifications for the people of the islands. It's really a story-centric game, where I thought up a story I wanted to tell, and then worked on developing technology that would support that. Totally the opposite from Damage, where the story was the last layer - the icing on the cake I guess you could call it - and wasn't really intrinsic to the game. Without the story, Odyssey is basically nothing. I guess I'd like to go back to games where story is more central to the development of the game. And I will, if I have my way.

What kind of games did you write before Odyssey?

Again, completely different games. They were all text adventures, all but one written on my Apple IIe in BASIC. My friend Ian and I used to trade them back and forth. Some of them were certainly as good as those Scott Adams adventures of old, though that's not saying too much. They were a lot of fun to create, since there was no technology to develop, just story to write. There was one that was a graphical adventure, but due to my own sloppy programming I ran out of memory on my IIe and just never really finished it as a result. Certainly none of them were good enough that I would actually show them to anyone. The element of story is very strong in both Odyssey and DI. Do you enjoy writing? Oh, absolutely. My two desired career paths, which I couldn't decide between in high school, was to be a writer - journalism as well as fiction - or a computer game developer. At one point I essentially flipped a coin, decided my chances of being able to support myself financially were better in the computer game world, and decided on that path. But, of course, I'm still writing stories, which is very important to me. Computer games are not necessarily a story telling medium - I love computer pinball games, and there's certainly no story involved there - but the games I want to make will have stories in them, and I will always write them myself. I'd even be trilled to write a story for someone else's game, if I knew they'd pull it off well.

What was the best part of developing DI?

The most personally rewarding moment was when we recorded the voices. First we did voices for the '96 MacWorld Boston version of the game that we were showing off then. I wrote the script for that really quickly, and I recruited Ben Young - who did all the sound effects for the game - to record the voices with me, and he brought in two of his friends, Robb Thomas and Saul "Terry" Thomas. They're actually unrelated. Anyway, none of us are professional actors, and we all pretty much sucked at it except for Terry, who was so good I asked him back after the MacWorld show to record Carnage and Johansen's real parts. With Terry, the lines I had written really came alive, and sounded much better than they were on paper. Then when I got real actors like Romanus Isaac in, I was just amazed what they could do with even the worst of the dialog I had. And when Eric Virkalla revealed his beautiful John Wayne imitation, I was thrilled as he convert the lines I had written into genuine Duke-isms.

Some of the lines I wrote, often the ones I liked the best, became just horrible when read aloud, however, and I would furiously rewrite them while the actors were waiting. Luckily they weren't getting paid by the hour. It's almost a completely different writing style, writing lines which are going to be read on paper or on the screen, as opposed to those that people will act out. I think the dialog in Odyssey is pretty good, for instance, but if you read it aloud, try to act it out, some of it becomes hideous. I really look forward to the next script I write, where I'll plan in advance that people are going to be acting what I write. I think, or I hope at least, that it'll be ten times better as a result.

In between all the work, do you ever get the time to play? What type of games do you like?

Recently the game I've played the most is Dadgum Games' fantastic arcade game, Bumbler. It really is just a real thing of beauty, if you're into classic arcade games, right up there with other Mac classics like Solarian II and Peg Leg. Just last week I had to delete Bumbler off of my hard, it was eating up so much of my time! James Hague really understands the syntax of making a classic arcade game, and it's a real testament to his design skills that the game simultaneously reminds me of classics like Robotron 2084 and Centipede, while being totally original.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've been playing Jordan Mechner's The Last Express. It's fascinating because it's such a departure from his earlier games - Prince of Persia and Karateka - but he's still totally at the top of his form. The game's really beautiful, using this unique cartoon-FMV-rotoscoping hybrid, and the writing is probably the best I've ever seen in a computer game. And it's non-linear and has a lot of replay value, as you can eavesdrop on different people each time you play. I'm almost more interested by the side-stories than the main plot. And it's set in the early twentieth century, on the actual Orient Express, and it's just so refreshing to play an adventure game based in reality.

From those games you might think I don't really like 3D shooters that much, but I do. I loved Doom II and Quake, despite their total lack of a storyline. And Marathon 2 is probably my favorite 3D shooter of all time. A lot of people probably think I'm nuts to say that, but it's got the best art, the best game balance, and certainly the best storyline of any first person blow-em-away yet.

The best art?

Sure. I mean, the engine is certainly dated technology, but all of the characters are just so well drawn, the anatomy's perfect, and every pixel's in just the right place. And the character designs are really imaginative and diverse. I mean, Quake's characters move really nicely, but you get up and look at them and, well, they just look like shit. Don't get me wrong, I love Quake, but the technology's just not there to make a good looking polygonal monster yet, to my eyes. Probably never will be. I'll take a well drawn sprite any day.

The chapter paintings in Damage Incorporated weren't computer drawn, were they? Was this because of your dislike for computer art?

No they certainly weren't computer generated. Derek Riggs, John Hanley, Charlie Gillespie, and Glenn Fabry pained all of those by hand, and they were then scanned in by us, and I think they've really got a more human touch than computer generated art generally does. I mean, I do use computers all the time, they're just a tool, and good, human art can still be created with them. But I think it's harder, it takes a visual artist away from his canvas, he just doesn't have control over it like he does with a real piece of paper. I've seen visual art drawn on computer that I've liked, don't get me wrong, but I still tend to prefer hand-made work, using traditional methods instead of Photoshop filters.

Originally Derek - who's just a mind blowing artist, really, he's done nearly all of Iron Maiden's cover art over the years - was going to do all of the paintings, but didn't have enough time in his schedule. I then got John Hanley - who was a friend of Jeff O'Connor, the lead artist on the game - to do a couple. He's done some work for DC Comics on assorted Batman projects, and for Damage he did the first one, the White Paladins, and the Grazziano Fellini painting. I also wanted Glenn Fabry - whose fantastic covers I'd seen on the comic book series Preacher - to do a chapter painting, but he was out of our price range. But he recommended his friend Charlie Gillespie, who'd done a lot of work for the British comic 2000AD over the years, plus stuff for Magic: The Gathering cards. Charlie did the fifth painting, the Seekers of Desu. Derek ended up doing the Minute Militia painting, the TaKBA painting, the Better Tomorrow painting, and the final one, that you see at the end of the game. That final painting was originally the cover for the game, and ran on the cover of Inside Mac Games when they did a preview. But some higher-ups at GT Interactive didn't like it. They said it was too cartoony, and then demanded a new one. I tracked down Glenn Fabry again and asked him if he'd try to make a cover, as I had more money to offer him now. He did a beautiful job - what's now the title screen for the game - but MacSoft didn't think it was colorful enough for the box. Whatever. I still had control over the game itself though, so I put that as the title screen. I was really honored, and damn lucky, to have such talent working on the game. I mean, really, I was lucky to have all the other talented people working on the game. Like Ben Young who did all the sound for the game, which is really really nice, I think. Probably my favorite thing in the game. And Jeff O'Connor was the lead artist, and he did a really phenomenal job in a really short amount of time. And last but not least, Alain Roy, who still amazes me with his programming skill, and who worked as a great buffer zone against my more ridiculous and impractical design ideas.

But while we're on the subject of computer versus hand-made art, I may somewhat dislike computer-generated visual art, but it pales in comparison to how much I dislike computer generated music. I was lucky to be able to license that Death track, Cosmic Sea, for the theme music, which is just four guys playing real instruments, digitized straight into the computer. Well, there is some synth thrown in the middle there, but it's totally background stuff. With computer generated music, I often think the humanity has just been tossed out the window in favor of metronome-like drum machines and note-perfect samples. I mean, people are entitled to like whatever they want and that's fine and good, but I'm happy I was able to have "primitive" totally human-made music and chapter paintings in the game.

What are your plans for the future? Should we expect a sequel to DI?

I'm generally not a big fan of sequels, though many computer games seem to get better with their sequels, as opposed to books or movies which almost always get worse. Indeed, Marathon 2 was, in my opinion, a lot better than Marathon 1. But I don't know about doing one myself. It's not on the table right now, though doing a sequel would allow me to do a lot of things I thought of after the game had already shipped, and to really work on and refine the squad member's artificial intelligence. In order to be commercially viable in today's market, it would probably have to use the licensed Quake engine, or some equivalent polygonal-character, true 3D system. And I've already voiced my dislike for polygon-humans a minute ago.

What sort of things did you think of after DI had been finished?

Wow, there are just so, so many. Something I really wanted to do was to make the enemies a bit smarter, a bit like real enemies. I really really really wish they would eventually give up and either turn tail and run, or surrender. Surrendering could be really cool: they'd drop their weapon, which you could then pick up, and they'd just stand their with their arms in the air. Or maybe the devious ones would, once you went off somewhere else, leaving them unguarded, go look for a new weapon and come after you again. Then, in turn, Colonel Gray would get mad at you if you shot up adversaries after they'd surrendered. Maybe he'd even fire you and that'd be the end of the game.

I'd also like to involve the story more directly into the gameplay, though I'm not sure how to accomplish this without annoying people. Perhaps make a storyline even more ethically borderline than Damage's was, where maybe your commanding officer calls upon you to kill women and children and you've got to make a real choice to disobey orders or not. That's what would really interest me.

So if not Damage Incorporated II, what should we expect from you?

I do have a game - completely different from Odyssey and Damage Incorporated - all mapped out in my head, and in part on paper. It's sort of code-named "Shame of a Nation" right now, and it depends on whether I can line up the funding to get it made if anyone will ever see it. I sincerely hope so. It's in some ways the game I've always wanted to make, and it's fairly different from anything currently available. It's so different, I don't really want to talk about it, so fans of my other games will just have to wait for more information, I'm afraid.

Although there is much more variety in the Mac Games market than a couple of years ago, the Mac users are worrying that game companies may gradually abandon them. What is your opinion on that? Is there a future for us Macintosh fans?

The future's a little hazy at this point, that's for sure. The cynic in me may have given up hope, but the guy who really loves Apple computer who doesn't want to have to use a Wintel machine some day still has hope for Apple. I mean, it's not without hope, and I think getting rid of that nimrod Gil Ameilio was the best thing Apple's done in a long time. I wish Apple would market Rhapsody as something every Mac user should buy, as opposed to some sort of Windows NT type high-end-only platform. Rhapsody needs to become the standard OS everyone on the Mac uses, the MacOS emulator in it needs to really kick ass so everyone's old software still runs, Rhapsody has to be priced at a price everyone can afford, and then there's hope.

And it's not just up to Apple itself. Every single person who has a Mac right now and wants to be using something other than Windows 2000 in the next millennia, needs to be absolutely vigilant in their support of the Mac. They have to convince all their friends and family that they're idiots to buy Wintel machines, and make sure they buy Macs. They have to point out to people what a great piece of steaming shite Windows is, and don't let them say "Oh well, I've gotta buy one, everyone else did." You don't, that's just a bullshit excuse for supporting crappy technology. As the adage goes, you're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem.

As for gaming, it does look somewhat grim just now. And you've heard this a million times, but buying Mac games, good ones, is the best thing you can do to support the platform. Game companies are, 95% of the time, out for money, and if you're not buying their Macintosh games in good quantity, they'll stop making them. There aren't that many altruistic developers - like Bungie, Delta Tao and Ambrosia, for a few examples - who will keep making the stuff because they love to, and love the Mac. If you're pirating, just remember you'll only be able to copy stuff for a little while longer until there are no games left to pirate. And support games that were developed for the Mac in the first place, by God. Hm, anyone care to name a game made originally on the Mac everyone should go buy? And get your friends to buy it, too.

[Never Cry Submission]

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